31 May 2014

31 May 14 - A First For Poole Harbour Out-trumped By A First For Dorset

I decided to head out to Old Harry this morning. The forecast was for sunny at times conditions & light winds. The forecast was similar to the previous few days, which had produced several Bee-eater sightings at Portland & closer to home at Durlston, as well as Red-breasted Flycatcher (Portland), Serin (Portland & Durlston) & Greenish Warbler (Durlston). Therefore, if I had any sense I should be walking around Durlston or going further afield to Portland. But being loyal to my patch, I decided on Old Harry. At least I should get the chance to photograph some Fulmars, which would be a Family photo tick as they breed in small numbers of the cliff here. As expected it was a quiet walk out: the path goes through a few Whitethroat, Blackcap & Chiffchaff territories, but that was about all. Getting to the end there is a small spur of the chalk cliffs which I really enjoy visiting. Most of the grockles (local name for holidaymakers & tourists) miss the small path so it's always worth a look for a bit of peace & quiet. I've never know the name of this small spur, but it's always been Seat Point to me (as there is a stone seat there).
The view of the Old Harry outcrop from Seat Point 
It was still quiet when I got to Old Harry & the Rock Pipits had a family of youngsters feeding on the grassy cliff tops.
Rock Pipit: Adult. This is the nominate petrosus subspecies which occurs throughout the UK, except for the Faeroes, Shelands & Orkneys where it is replaced by kleinschmidti
Rock Pipit: Adult 
Rock Pipit: Juvenile
The chalky outcrops next to Old Harry have always has a few pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls & Herring Gulls breeding on them.
Great Black-backed Gull: Adult
Herring Gull: This is the nominate argenteus subspecies
Rabbit: There are normally some feeding on the grass before the grockles arrive
So far all very much as expected. But looking down at the sea below there were a couple of immature Eiders: this is usually a winter & passage species & they are the first Eiders I've seen in the Summer. Steve Morrison who has birded the Studland area for many years, but now lives in France, has commented that Eiders used to Summer regularly in the 70's & 80's, with up to about 20 birds involved. But the last birds which he is aware of in the Summer were in 1996. They look pretty settled at the moment & are clearly in advanced wing moult, so I'm hoping they will hang around.
Eider: Immature male
Eider: Female
Eider: I can't see them going anywhere quickly with this wing moult
Eider: Here are the wings of the male
While I was photographing the Eider, I was surprised to hear a Yellow Wagtail call. This wouldn't be that unusual in April when the majority of Spring birds move through Dorset, but it was the end of May. Turning round to look at it I realised it wasn't the normal British subspecies of Yellow Wagtail (flavissima) & assumed it was a Blue-headed Wagtail (flava) or perhaps a 'Channel Wagtail' which is an intermediate population between the flavissima & flava. I am still trying to learn all the features of Yellow Wagtail races, but couldn't remember the Blue-headed features off the top of my head (but I will be able to do so in the future now). So I grabbed a few quick photos in case it flew off. Photos taken, it then flew another 20 metres away, before landing to feed again. At this point, I pulled out the phone to ring local birder, Paul Morton. I wanted to check he had seen Eider this year as he is doing a Poole Harbour Year List & while it's unlikely to miss Eider during the year in the harbour, it's better to see one early on to avoid any stress about dipping towards the end of the year. He had, but then the conversation went in a more interesting way. He said he was out on Morden Bog, leading a Birds of Poole Harbour guided walk & was watching an interesting Raptor perched up & couldn't see why this pale bird wasn't a Short-toed Eagle. He had photos & was going to send me some to look at given this would be the third UK record before the news was released. Obviously before putting the news out he wanted a second opinion as this would likely to start a major twitch. At this point, I lost all interest in the Wagtail & decided that I had better start heading back to the car as it was only 20 minutes drive away (but over 30 minutes walk to the car). If it was a Short-toed Eagle it would be one of the birds of the year for the UK. Whilst not a UK tick, it would be a First for Dorset. But first it needed confirming, but I felt confident in Paul's thoughts on the bird, to call a few locals & provisionally warn them.
Looking back to Studland from Seat Point: It was 5 minutes back to Seat Point, but another 30 minutes walk to my car parked by the church, in the village just visible above the right end end of the chalk promontory. I tend to park here, not for religious or free parking, but because it's always worth checking the churchyard for migrants
Anyway, back to the Wagtail story. I didn't get the chance to look at the photos till about 22:00 that evening. A quick check revealed it wasn't a Blue-headed Wagtail as the head colouration would have been paler ashy grey & it would have also had a stronger white supercilium. Channel Wagtails have a paler, more lavender-coloured head still with a strong white supercilium, broadening behind the eye. So this is a lot more interesting & rarer race. Frustratingly, it's also a female bird as indicated by the extend of white on the throat & breast & these Yellow Wagtail races are tricky enough as Summer plumage males. I circulated one of the photos to some of the local birders & had responses back from Shaun Robson & Marcus Lawson, who also backing my private thoughts (at that stage) of Grey-headed Wagtail (thanks guys) & an email was posted that evening to the Dorset birders. Note, all photos have been cropped & sharpened, but no other changes have been made to the photos.
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female. Note the dark crown & darker ear coverts
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female. A thin supercilium is visible in this photo
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female. A better view of the broken gorget, Unfortunately, it never turned its body towards me
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female. A clearer view of the white throat and the gorget 
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female
Grey-headed Wagtail: Male. This is what a male looks like & I would have worked this out immediately, having seen a couple of birds in a Yellow Wagtail flock in India at Desert Coursers, Gujurat, India (18 Jan 14). Males have a medium grey upper head, darker ear coverts, generally little or no pale supercilium behind the eye, a white moustachial & a yellow throat
Looking at photos on the internet, the biggest problem for females seems to be ruling out an Ashy-headed Wagtails from a Grey-headed Wagtail. So here goes with why I think it's a Grey-headed Wagtail. Being a female it's more tricky than for males. Starting with the call. I wasn't listening to it in a very analytical way, but it sounded like a normal Yellow Wagtail to my ears. But I don't think the call is going to help, except to rule out Black-headed Wagtail race of Yellow Wagtail (which it isn't anyway). The best information I've managed to find on the identification of Yellow Wagtail races so far is the Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic by Madge & Beaman. The main problem seems to be ruling out a vagrant Ashy-headed Wagtail, cinereocapilla, as the other potential problem subspecies (Blue-headed Wagtail flava) has already been eliminated by the darkness of the face and ear-coverts & the lack of an obvious supercilium:-
Grey-headed Wagtail (thunbergi)
Typical adult females in Summer resembles those of flava, but the supercilium is weaker or absent, the head is darker & it has a dusky partial breast band. Grey-headed Wagtails breed from Scandinavia to Western Siberia & Winter in Sub-Saharan Africa & South & SE Asia.
Ashy-headed Wagtail (cinereocapilla) 
Typical adult females in Summer have dark crown and ear-coverts, sometimes a weak supercilium behind the eye resembling thunbergi, but the throat whiter and breast band less defined or absent. Ashy-headed Wagtails breed in italy, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and Slovenia & Winter in West Central Africa.
Grey-headed Wagtail: Female. A final photo of the First for Poole Harbour
It looks like Grey-headed Wagtail, thunbergi, is the best fit for this bird based upon the darker grey on the face, the weak supercilium & the partial breast band. If accepted, it will be the 7th record for Dorset & the first for Poole Harbour. I'm now circulating the pictures more widely & if anybody has any useful comments, please add them to the blog. The previous records are:-
Portland Bill: 24 September 1977
Lodmoor: 28 August 1978
Lodmoor: 25 May - 16 August 1990
Stanpit: 8 - 11 September 1996
Stanpit: 23 May 2001
Reap Lane, Portland: 20 May 2011

I really wish I had worked out it's significance of the Wagtail when I saw it. However, the only consolation was few birders were going to worry about a rare Yellow Wagtail subspecies, with a potential Short-toed Eagle about 12 miles away. But the news from Paul wasn't sounding good: the bird had flown off & been lost from sight. Given it had gone I carried on walking back to the car fairly fast, but was now stopping for interesting things again, while I was awaiting some photos to be sent. It turns out Paul was on his way with the photos to Shaun's house (as he was unable to send the photos out by phone).
Blackbird: Female
Blackbird: Successful local breeding confirmed
Green-veined White: Easily overlooked in flight for one of the commoner Whites, but distinctive when seen feeding
Now back at the car, I received an update from Paul & a perched photo of a Short-toed Eagle. Bloody hell. A great find for a good mate & a hard local Poole Harbour watcher. Paul's write up of the day & his better photos are on the Birds of Poole Harbour website. Congrats again Paul. The update to the news when it flew East it appeared to be going in the direction of Poole Harbour. But this was an hour old news. Still there was a very slim chance it won't be entering New Forest airspace by this stage. So I quickly headed to a prominent viewpoint on Hartland Heath & started looking. But after 2 hours & with no news from any of the other locals, then it was clear it had left the area. Back home for some very late lunch. I had just finished when the pager mega alerted again to say it had been seen flying East over Morden Bog again, but again an hour old news. There was no indication of who the observer was, as nothing on the local email or grape vine, but time to head out again. Luckily for my mate Peter Moore, he had been looking at Puffins at Dancing Ledge near my village with family & friends, & had just returned to the cars when the mega alert went. He checked with the boss if it was OK to go with me, but I suspect he was long out of ear-shot by the time Claire has answered. Soon we were racing North again to Morden Bog & decided on a viewpoint along with my mate Andy Mears from Bristol & Nick Hopper & his Claire, at the Southern end, so the light would be behind us. No joy in the 20 minutes we were there, until my phone rang from George Green at the Northern end of Morden Bog to say he was watching the bird. We were the first to arrive being so close & fortunately it was still sitting in the tree a couple of hundred metres away.
Short-toed Eagle: There are better photos on Peter Moore's blog when he returned the following day on the excuse of going out for some exercise on his bicycle
The crowd shot about 90 minutes after we arrived
Whilst getting some crap record shots, I started ringing everybody I knew to get the news out & get people to our viewpoint. The last thing anybody wanted was people going all over the heath as that might flush the bird. In the end about 200 or so birders got to see it by the time I left about 21:00 & all were well behaved & kept well back: except for one selfish rogue local photographer who felt it necessary to get really close. It's clearly more important for him to get good photos (despite a good flight shot from the morning), than it is to behave & consider other birders, so everybody coming for the bird can see it. In the end, the bird didn't flush, despite what must have been a very close approach, but it's only possible for him to be cocky in hindsight. This isn't the first time he has got too close to Raptors, as can clearly be seen from photos he has posted in the past. Note, I've removed the links to his blog as I'm not prepared to give him any passing traffic from my blog. I hope other local birders will do the same on their blogs.